Johnny Depp loses libel battle against The Sun over ‘wife beater’ claims

Pirates of the Caribbean star attempted to sue publisher over 2018 article which alleged he was violent to ex-wife Amber Heard

Chiara Giordano
Monday 02 November 2020 15:19
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Johnny Depp loses libel case against The Sun over ‘wife beater’ article
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Johnny Depp has lost his libel battle against the publisher of The Sun newspaper over an article that claimed he was a “wife beater”. 

The Pirates of the Caribbean star sought to sue the tabloid’s publisher News Group Newspapers (NGN) and its executive editor Dan Wootton over the 2018 article, which alleged he was violent to ex-wife Amber Heard during their relationship.  

Jenny Afia of Schillings law firm, who represented Mr Depp, said the actor intended to appeal against the “perverse” and “bewildering” ruling. 

Both Mr Depp and actor Ms Heard gave evidence at the Royal Courts of Justice in London in July, during a three-week trial that featured days of high drama, claims of brutal violence and sensational revelations about their tempestuous relationship.  

Mr Depp repeatedly denied ever having been violent to Ms Heard, but Mr Justice Nicol dismissed that claim on Monday, saying NGN had proven what was in Mr Wootton’s article to be “substantially true”.  

American actress Amber Heard, former wife of actor Johnny Depp, gives a statement outside the High Court in London

The judge said: “Although he has proved the necessary elements of his cause of action in libel, the defendants have shown that what they published, in the meaning which I have held the words to bear, was substantially true.  

“I have reached these conclusions having examined in detail the 14 incidents on which the defendants rely, as well as the over-arching considerations which the claimant submitted I should take into account.”

In his April 2018 column, Mr Wootton had asked how Harry Potter author JK Rowling could be “genuinely happy” that Mr Depp had been cast in the latest film in the Fantastic Beasts spin-off franchise amid the allegations by Ms Heard.

Mr Depp spent around 20 hours in the witness box over five days during the trial, facing intense questioning about his Hollywood lifestyle, his use of drink and drugs, allegations of violence, and his friendships and associations with famous faces including Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and musician Sir Elton John.

He denied having been violent to Ms Heard and claimed Mr Wootton’s column  included quotes from alleged victims of disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein in order to “finish his career” by linking the allegations against him to the Me Too and Time's Up movement.

However, Mr Justice Nicol said he found 12 of the 14 alleged incidents of domestic violence against Ms Heard did occur.  

He also concluded Ms Heard was not responsible for Mr Depp losing the tip of his finger during what the actress described in her evidence as a “three-day hostage situation” in Australia in March 2015.  

The judge said Ms Heard's description of the incident in Australia “as ‘akin to a hostage situation’ was something of a hyperbole”, however, adding that she “could have left the house”.  

But he accepted she was “the victim of sustained and multiple assaults” by Mr Depp in Australia, who “put her in fear of her life”.  

“It is a sign of the depth of his rage that he admitted scrawling graffiti in blood from his injured finger and then, when that was insufficient, dipping his badly injured finger in paint and continuing to write messages and other things,” the judge said.  

Mr Justice Nicol rejected Mr Depp’s characterisation of Ms Heard as a “gold-digger” who had “constructed a hoax” and that she had done this as an “insurance policy”.  

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard pictured together in 2011

He said he accepted Ms Heard's evidence that the allegations she made against Mr Depp “have had a negative effect on her career as an actor and activist". 

Speaking after the ruling, a spokesperson for The Sun said: “The Sun has stood up and campaigned for the victims of domestic abuse for over 20 years.  

“Domestic abuse victims must never be silenced and we thank the judge for his careful consideration and thank Amber Heard for her courage in giving evidence to the court." 

In a statement, Ms Heard’s US lawyer Elaine Charlson Bredehoft said the actress’ legal team would be presenting more evidence in Mr Depp's libel action in Virginia against his ex-wife over a Washington Post opinion piece.

A photo of Amber Heard from May 2016 referred to as an exhibit in court
Photo shown in court of injuries Amber Heard sustained during an incident in which Johnny Depp admitted to ‘accidentally’ headbutting her

She added: “For those of us present for the London High Court trial, this decision and judgment are not a surprise.

“We are committed to obtaining justice for Amber Heard in the US court and defending Ms Heard's right to free speech."

Nicki Norman, acting chief executive at Women's Aid, said in response to the judgment: “The allegations of domestic abuse against Johnny Depp were extremely serious.  

“Everyone who has experienced domestic abuse deserves to be listened to and believed.  

“This also applies to survivors who do not fit the image of the ‘perfect’ victim - and regardless of the high profile of the alleged abuser. There is no excuse for domestic abuse.”

Lisa King, director of communications and external relations at charity Refuge, said: “This is an important ruling and one which we hope sends a very powerful message: Every single survivor of domestic abuse should be listened to and should be heard. 

“What we have seen today is that power, fame and financial resources cannot be used to silence women. That is a welcome message for survivors of domestic abuse around the world.”

PR guru Mark Borkowski said Johnny Depp's court fight was “one of the biggest showbiz fails for a long time”.

He said “nothing is impossible, write no obituaries for his career” but added: “His brand had a sort of edge and that edge now has turned into something that is really ugly and abusive.”

Additional reporting by PA

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